The NFL Scouting Combine is only a single piece to the evaluation process and preparation for the draft. What makes the trip to Indianapolis so intriguing is the fact that it is the first and only time the entire draft class is brought together with an opportunity to compare everyone. It can be frustrating to team executives when prospects decide not to fully participate. However, with the amount of coverage the event now receives, the majority of the top players participate.
Things can and will change, starting in Indy and leading up to the draft. Certain players will disappoint and others will impress. Keep in mind, personnel evaluation is a subjective thing. One team will see a player in a completely different light than another organization. Needs will drive selection, and scheme is also an influence.
You will hear the term "best available player" a lot over the next couple of months, but since no two draft boards are exactly alike "best available" can be a misleading concept.
If your favorite team has a top 10 selection, there's particular importance in the investment, both on the field and financially. Below is a closer look at those teams heading to the combine and the players high on their lists to be evaluated based on needs and the present rating of talent. Keep in mind, the lower the pick, the more players a team has to evaluate in order to be prepared for when it is on the clock.
No. 1: Panthers
Analysis: This will be Ron Rivera's first draft as a head coach, and he will rely heavily on GM Marty Hurney and his scouting staff. There are so many needs that discussions will include moving down to add extra picks. I have been involved with the top pick before, and it is difficult to move out of the spot unless a franchise quarterback emerges as the top player. Even though Newton is starting to gain momentum, he has a ways to go in the eyes of most evaluators. The Panthers need a franchise QB and the position has dominated the No. 1 pick in recent drafts. If Newton fails to live up to the hype, there are excellent defensive candidates to choose from. Bowers, who might fully participate at the combine coming off knee surgery, could replace the loss of Julius Peppers from last offseason. Bowers is still considered a top prospect, but his medical exam and interviews will carry a lot of weight. Although Fairley has a chance to be a dominating defensive tackle, he only did it for one college season. Peterson has a tremendous body of work, and how he runs in Indy could go a long way in securing his place in the draft.
No. 2: Broncos
Possible picks: Bowers, Fairley, DT Marcell Dareus, Peterson
Analysis: With Champ Bailey back in the mix, it likely changes the draft plans, shifting the focus away from Peterson and probably to the defensive line. New coach John Fox has to convert a poor 3-4 defense into a dominating 4-3, and the project starts up front. His old team, the Panthers, picks before him and they have a lot of interest in the same defensive linemen. Fox is guaranteed one of the top two in Bowers or Fairley. However, Dareus is going to receive very close scrutiny as well at the combine. With the next three teams all looking at quarterbacks, there might eventually be a partner to move down a few spots since the Broncos are not in the quarterback business this year. Denver has to get to a point where it feels good about a few defensive players before determining how far down it would be willing to drop. The combine will start to lay the groundwork for that potential decision, which is why a guy like Dareus could be in the equation.
No. 3: Bills
Possible picks: Newton, Bowers, Fairley, Peterson, QB Blaine Gabbert, Dareus
Analysis: The Bills haven't had a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly, and the top two in this draft need a close look. The problem Gabbert is not expected to participate fully at the combine, which I think is a mistake. Bills coach Chan Gailey is an excellent quarterback evaluator, and he might end up liking someone he can select later in the draft, so keep an eye on all the quarterbacks in Indy. If the Bills pass on a QB in the first round, there will still be a value pick on the defensive side of the ball. Buffalo will also look closely at offensive tackles, but there is depth in this area and the team might opt for one in the second round.
No. 4: Bengals
Analysis: When the Bengals select, the player they might want the most could be gone, and a move up is unlikely. Carson Palmer threatening retirement if he isn't traded has to factor into the evaluation of the quarterbacks. If they fell in love with Newton, then maybe they would be willing to move Palmer. Problem is, without a CBA, that would not be allowed. In the meantime, they need help on defense. If Bowers and Fairley are gone, and Quinn falls short, they could turn their interest to Green. The Bengals have solid corners, but the combine could also create more interest in Peterson as a safety, which Cincinnati needs.
No. 5 Cardinals
Analysis: While the Cardinals are going to say they like their young quarterbacks, they also have to study the top options in this draft. They cannot pass on an opportunity to add a franchise player at the position if one is available. The easy pick, and maybe the best, would be Miller. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton has his work cut out for him to get a pass rush from the current outside linebackers. He knows from his Steelers days that most of the pass rush comes from that position. It is probably too early in the draft for a guy like Ryan Kerrigan, a hybrid DE/OLB, but the Cardinals will study him closely in case they were to move down in the draft.
No. 6: Browns
Possible picks: Quinn, Green, WR Julio Jones, Miller, Bowers
Analysis: A guy like Bowers might be gone, but the Browns will cover their bases in case he falls to them or they think it is worth moving up. Quinn didn't play last year due to a suspension, but has tremendous credentials from 2009. The combine will let everyone know how ready he is to return to action. His interview will be critical as he explains what happened and what he's learned from the suspension. The wide receiver situation needs help; Cleveland really hasn't had a playmaker since Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow were traded. All eyes will be on Green and Jones when they run the 40-yard dash. With veterans like Sidney Rice and Santonio Holmes not getting the franchise tag, draft plans could be altered. However, the receivers at the combine will get a thorough evaluation.
No. 7: 49ers
Analysis: New coach Jim Harbaugh sounds excited about the possible return of Alex Smith in his version of the West Coast offense. That will not restrict the 49ers from evaluating the quarterbacks with first-round grades. Neither Newton nor Gabbert come from a West Coast system and might not be what Harbaugh is looking for with such a high pick. Amukamara should be available and could fit a need in the secondary. The 49ers need a pass rush, and that puts Quinn and Aldon Smith on the radar.
No. 8: Titans
Analysis: It's no secret the Titans are going to need a quarterback in this draft. Both Newton and Gabbert could be gone, but they also could both be available. New coach Mike Munchak has to look long and hard at both players, as well as Jake Locker for later consideration. If Newton and Gabbert are gone, a pass rusher with linebacker skills could be next up. Look for the Titans to take some offensive line help later in the draft.
No. 9: Cowboys
Analysis: The Cowboys need an offensive tackle, and they might have the pick of the crop at this spot. There are a number of quality players to evaluate, and this could be an easy selection, especially if the top two corners are gone. Coach Jason Garrett and his staff will also pay attention to the eligible defensive ends still on the board who can play the five-technique in a 3-4 defense.
No. 10: Redskins
Possible picks: Newton, Jones, Green, Gabbert, Amukamara
Analysis: Always count on the Redskins to go get what they want with GM Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan teaming up in a draft. They need a quarterback, and they could have to move up to get one. A number of teams will listen to offers. If the Redskins could sign Sidney Rice, if and when free agency ever starts, that would go a long way toward taking care of a big need at receiver. Otherwise, they might have to take a wideout here if the QBs are gone and Rice can't be signed. If all else fails, they still need a corner.